We know video games are big in pop culture: millions of us, of all ages, play them every day. We know they're big in business: the video game industry in the United States alone is worth over $25 billion annually, to say nothing of the rest of the world. And it seems that the United States government knows how big a deal they are, too.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has a senior analyst whose job is video games. Her name is Constance Steinkuehler, and her job is to analyze ways that video games could be useful not only for education, but for crowdsourcing solutions to scientific and military problems.
Speaking with NPR, Steinkuehler dismissed the popular idea that video games mainly make young players violent and instead pointed to research around beneficial effects of games, saying:
The first research really focused on its violent themes, for example, because, obviously, that's been sort of part of the American imagination of games as sort of leading to videogames violence, with issues like Columbine.
And yet it turns out that many of those relationships just haven't borne out in the research, and new fields have emerged around looking at how games function as a means for turning screen time into activity time, thinking about: How can you use them to get up off the couch and get fit? How can you use them for improving problem-solving or scientific reasoning? And, in fact, believe it or not, as far as: How could you use them to think about crowdsourcing scientific discovery itself?
Steinkuehler also revealed what got her studying games in the first place. Her first field of study was math, but after downloading NCSoft's now-defunct MMO Lineage, she was hooked, and had a new field of study. MMO players are often known for taking on remarkable levels of work and challenge for themselves, and, observing that phenomenon, she was unable to resist its allure:
[A]fter spending about a week watching people do tasks far beyond the level of sophistication that we would have asked them to do in our spaces and realizing that they were not only there voluntarily, they were paying to be there, I realized there's something here that we have to understand. So I dropped everything I was doing and switched gears and have studied games ever since.
Gaming is clearly the wave not only of the present, but of the future. Much as government learned both to use and adapt to support photography, film, and television in the past, it needs now to adapt to an evolving digital landscape. If gaming can be used to help with research, education, and positive social outcomes, that's a win. But while games are still the scapegoat for so many social ills, and so many lawmakers still target the medium, it's great to find that someone out there understands what makes gaming great.